Mother Theresa’s dilemma

There have been a flurry of news items and commentary about the publication of a book of Mother Theresa’s letters, which reveal that she struggled for most of her life with the fear that there was no god. Excerpts from the letters (as quoted in the press) show that during almost her entire ministry, she struggled with deep doubt, saying things like: “Where is my faith?. . .Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. . . . If there be God — please forgive me. . . Such deep longing for God. . . . Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal. . . What do I labor for? . . . If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

The letters reveal a woman who yearned for some sign that her belief in god was justified, for some sense that there was a godly presence, and that she failed to receive such reassurance, although she publicly maintained a face of unwavering devotion.

Religious apologists have been quick to try and shield her from suggestions that she was a hypocrite acting in bad faith, hiding her disbelief in god behind a façade of piety. They point out (correctly) that most religious people have doubts from time to time and struggle to maintain their beliefs. It is perhaps only the psychotic who are absolutely certain that god exists and think that god speaks to them in clear and unambiguous ways. So while her doubts seem to have been deeper and longer lasting than most religious people would admit to, they are by no means unique.

It is not hard to see why Mother Theresa’s belief in god was being constantly challenged. Most ordinary religious people are fortunate in that they do not often have to deal with tragedy and sadness in their own lives, excepting for maybe one or two major events, thus making it easier to maintain belief in a benevolent deity. But she was dealing on a daily basis with the sickness and death of huge numbers of men and women, young and old, who had not done anything that merited the deep misfortunes that befell them. Under those circumstances it would have been inhuman for her not to question the benevolence of god. It was perfectly natural for her to seek some sign from god that all the suffering she saw had some purpose and meaning, and to despair when she did not receive such an assurance.

In some ways, Mother Theresa may have been a victim of her own success, trapping her into a belief structure that she could not reject without also undermining the work she was trying to do. Most of us who can switch from believers to atheists and the only disruption this may cause is within our small circle of family and friends. But she was an enormously successful figure for the image of the Catholic Church, generating immense amounts of goodwill and money because of her work with the desperately poor people of Calcutta. She would have known that to make her doubts public, let alone come out as an atheist, would have resulted in a huge blow to the faith of others. Such an admission would have been to turn her back on the basis on which she had started her entire life’s work. While she could have continued her work as a doubter, that would have risked losing the official backing of the Catholic Church and its publicity apparatus, which was undoubtedly helpful in efforts to raise money.

In the normal course of events, when we fail to find evidence for something, it is considered to be a reasonable thing to not believe in that thing. This is why we do not believe in the existence of unicorns or fairies and do not hesitate to publicly say so. To do otherwise would be considered hypocrisy. But in the case of Mother Theresa, the split between her public unwavering piety and her private doubts is being portrayed, oddly, as something virtuous. I find it hard to see how it can be virtuous to publicly profess devout belief while harboring serious doubts. That simply imposes feelings of guilt on those who also do not have certainty, making them feel that their own faith must be somehow inadequate or inferior to hers. Surely it would have been better for her and others if she had said publicly that she had her doubts, just like everyone else, but that she hoped that her belief and hope in god would be vindicated in the afterlife.

As Daniel Dennett points out, this hiding of doubt behind the mask of certainty cannot be a good thing:

[T]here is good reason to believe that the varieties of self-admonition and self-blinding that people have to indulge in to gird their creedal loins may actually cost them something substantial in the moral agency department: a debilitating willingness to profess solemnly in the utter absence of conviction, a well-entrenched habit of deflecting their attention from evidence that is crying out for consideration, and plenty of experience biting their tongues and saying nothing when others around them make assumptions that they know in their hearts to be false.

It is hard not to sympathize with Mother Theresa’s lifelong struggle to find some reason to believe. It must have caused her considerable anguish to fear that she may have been living a lie. I believe that such struggles are far more common than we realize and are due entirely to expecting people to believe in things for which there is no evidence and making them feel guilty when they cannot do so with easy assurance. This is the kind of thing that happens when we elevate ‘faith’, i.e., belief in the absence of evidence, to a virtue.

POST SCRIPT Constitution Day Forum

Case’s Third Annual Constitution Day forum will be on the topic Religion and the Constitution and held today (Monday September 17, 2007), 4:30 p.m. ― 6:00 p.m. in Ford Auditorium, Allen Medical Library.

The panel looks good and it should be interesting.

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